Regarding NBC's Cancellation of "Harry's Law" and Why NBC Should Be More Like CBS

posted May 17, 2012, 9:41 AM by Terrence Moss   [ updated Oct 20, 2012, 10:19 AM ]
Now that the Big 4 broadcast networks have announced their prime-time schedules for the fall, let the NBC bashing begin.

Leave it to a fourth-place network to cancel their HIGHEST RATED SCRIPTED SHOW (behind The Voice) and their second-highest rated show, period (third if you count Sunday Night Football).

That cancelled show is Harry’s Law and that ever-laughable network is NBC.

The David E. Kelley drama, starring multiple Emmy nominee Kathy Bates, averaged just fewer than 8 million viewers for its just-concluded second season -- almost a full million more viewers than the #2-seeded scripted series on the network, Law & Order: Special Victims Unitwhich was renewed for a 14th season.

Meanwhile, the ratings cellar-dwellers that currently make up NBC’s entire Thursday night lineup all made the cut. With the exception of The Office, Harry’s Law averaged more than twice the viewership of them all and 2.5 million MORE viewers than The Office.

But many of those Harry’s Law viewers are older – and older viewers are ridiculously considered undesirable to advertisers. Though The Office is on the decline, it remains NBC’s highest rated scripted series in the A1849 demo as well as #2 overall behind The Voice with a 2.8 average for the season. Harry’s Law, on the other hand, is one of NBC’s lowest-rated series in the demo at a 1.1.

It’s a classic example of demographics over viewership and a perfect case study of how outdated network TV’s current methodologies are. It’s an argument I’ve already been making for the last few years.

The TV advertising industry has long been driven by demographics -- with A1849 being the coveted target for advertisers, the agencies that represent them and consequently by the networks who seem to program their schedules more for the advertisers who have the money than the viewers who spend it.

Just a few years ago, the benchmark for success in that “all-important” A1849 demo was a 4.0 rating (a percentage of tune-in from that particular viewing segment). Now that benchmark is down to a 2.0. Based on what remains on NBC’s schedule, their benchmark is a 1.5 – with 30 Rock bringing up the rear.

With only five shows – The Voice, The Office, Fear Factor, Smash, The Biggest Loser and Celebrity Apprentice -- rating higher than a 2.0 for the season, NBC didn’t have much of a choice in lowering that standard benchmark to determine what will remain on their fall schedule. 

So it amazes that NBC wasn’t the network to declare that the A1849 demographic is outdated. It was CBS, which toggles back-and-forth with FOX for #1 in the demo and had more to lose than NBC. In an interview last November reported by deadline.com, CBS head honcho Les Moonves reiterated that he’s always seen the slavish reverence of Madison Avenue for the 18-49 demo as highly flawed.

“Just basing the world on 18-49 is an untrue measure,” he emphasized. “I keep seeing it said in the press and from analysts that it’s the only demographic that matters to advertisers. We don’t sell our schedule solely on 18-49. We sell it all sorts of different ways…Baby Boomers have gotten older. But our attitude is that a big hit — even a big 18-49 hit — is watched by everybody. So the idea of a broadcaster programming just for a niche audience is silly.”

I couldn’t agree more. First off, the median age of the TV viewer (51) is two years out of this prized demographic. With DVR, online viewing, cable and a general lack of interest in broadcast television, the younger end of that prized demographic isn’t watching television in the same manner and they never will. It’s not the world they grew up into.

The broadcast networks, NBC in particular, appear very slow on this uptake. While there will be some marquee shows such as American Idol that will pop up, the younger end of that prized demographic will continue to rely on DVR and online viewing for their television consumption. Hence why overall numbers for A1849 continue to decrease and why that benchmark continues to be lowered. The extent to which people are watching less broadcast television has just as much to do with the fact that they're just watching it differently as it does that there is far more competition for that viewership. 

Several years ago though, Nielsen began tracking Live + Same Day viewing, Live + Three Day viewing as well as DVR viewership. While a percentage of viewers at the younger end of the A1849 demo were found here to boost those declining numbers and while the networks have begun to consider these three new metrics in their decision-making, their focus still lies with the live viewing because that is where the advertisers’ focus remains. This is somewhat justified in that DVR viewers generally fast-forward through commercials just like VCR viewers did 15 years ago.

Secondly, the continued focus on A1849 shows a complete lack of regard in older viewers WHO ARE STILL ACTUALLY WATCHING TELEVISION. Conventional wisdom says that older viewers are set in their ways and fiercely loyal to their respective brands so it’s a waste of money trying to reach them with advertiser messaging.

WRONG. Today’s older viewers aren’t the same older viewers of yesteryear. They’re more flexible, more open to new ideas, more internet savvy and less averse to new technologies than ever before. More importantly, they generally have more disposable income than their younger counterparts – many of whom are struggling to make ends meet in these economically challenging times we. In fact, a lot of young adults have moved back home where they fall back in line with the brands and trends their parents set for the house.

Additionally, young adult viewers in general have about as much brand loyalty as a talent agent has for a movie star on the decline. Even moreso than older viewers, they are looking for sales, bargains and deals regardless of the brand.

While I understand that the business of TV advertising is still driven by those “all-important” demo numbers, it amazes me that Les and I remain in the minorority of those who see how flawed that drive is enough to dare suggest a change.

Consider how CBS programs their schedule. They’re widely ridiculed for loading up on crime procedurals such as NCIS, the three (now two) CSIs and Criminal Minds as well as broad comedies such as Two and a Half Men, 2 Broke Girls and The Big Bang Theory instead of “smart shows” like Community, Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock.

What many fail to understand is that those procedurals and broad comedies generate VIEWERSHIP.

Case in point – whereas only ONE NBC program (The Voice) averaged more than ten million viewers this season, only six scripted and four unscripted programs on CBS delivered LESS than that. Interestingly, the only scripted CBS show NOT to draw more viewers than Harry’s Law, the #1 scripted show on NBC prior to its cancellation, was How to Be a Gentleman – which itself was cancelled last October after three airings.

For those A1849 loyalists who continue to erroneously consider CBS to be the “old network” because of its history of running such shows as Murder, She Wrote (from 1984 to 1996) and Diagnosis Murder (from 1993 to 2001), try this on for size: only five of CBS’s shows averaged LESS than a 2.0 rating this season compared to the seven shows on NBC that averaged MORE than a 2.0.

Two of those CBS shows, NYC22 and A Gifted Man, have been cancelled. Two others, CSI: NY and Blue Bloods, air on the otherwise dead FRIDAY night – where they still deliver more than ten million viewers. The fifth, 48 Hours Mystery, is an unscripted show that airs at 10pm on the even deader SATURDAY night following two hours of crime procedural repeats.

But wait, there’s more…the 2.8 A1849 rating for The Office, NBC’s highest rated scripted series in the demo, ranks 13th among CBS shows in the demo. In terms of overall viewership, it outdraws only 48 Hours Mystery....which airs at 10pm on Saturday nights...following two hours of crime procedural repeats.

Obviously, CBS is in much better shape than NBC and for good reason because demo ratings should never become more important than viewership. As the success of CBS proves, viewership will naturally bring in viewers within any demographic you want to target.

It’s a lesson NBC needs to learn quickly and a methodology it needs to adopt even more quickly if it’s going to rise from the ashes of its once-storied ratings supremacy. With its clear lack of programming strategy, foresight in cancelling Harry’s Law (once again, its #1 rated scripted show) and ridiculous insistence on focusing on the antiquated A1849 demographic, that rise will not take place anytime soon.

The solution for NBC, as CBS figured out a long time ago, is to program their schedule for the masses. Go for viewers and the demos will follow – be they A1849, A2554 (where a 4 rating can still be achieved) and, perish the thought, A55+ (where even a 6 rating is possible!!).

Mass appeal is what kept NBC at the top of the ratings with viewers and A1849 in the 1980s and 1990s. It’s what has kept CBS at the top of the ratings with viewers, A1849 and A2554 for much of the last decade. The many executive regimes that have come and gone at NBC in that time have forgotten that.

Where one NBC executive was all about the bottom-line by boosting the slate of unscripted programming at the expense of scripted comedies and dramas, another was all about niche, “smart” single-camera comedies with limited appeal.

And based on their fall schedule (as it stands at this point), I see no semblance of a long-term strategy or a reversion back to where their greatest success lay -- broad multi-camera comedies with mass appeal. Only one multi-cam, the silly, sophomoric, somewhat “dumb dad” Guys with Kids, made it onto the fall schedule.

And it wasn’t even placed with Whitney, the network’s only other multi-cam. Why fellow new series, the single-cam Animal Practice (dubbed “House” with pets) is a better match for Guys with Kids is beyond me. How Guys with Kids is expected to lead into Law & Order: Special Victims Unit is even more beyond me. Why NBC thinks Law & Order: Special Victims Unit would work at 9pm when it’s a clear 10pm show that didn’t work at 9pm two seasons ago perplexes me to no end.

Then there’s The Voice. Scheduling a fall run of their #1 show with viewers and in the A1849 demo is going to be detrimental to the spring run. I know it was several regimes ago, but they clearly forgot how a Fall 2004 run botched up the promising Last Comic Standing. That must not matter because the current regime hasn’t figured out that over-reliance on The Biggest Loser with two-hour editions throughout the fall and the spring diluted what was once a very strong performer for the network in both Total Viewers and A1849.

But wait…there are more questions about the new series:

Where is story of Revolution going to go? How long is it really going to take for Matthew Perry to Go On? How is Chicago Fire going to be different or better than FX’s long-running Rescue Me? How is new series Do No Harm expected to find an audience on Sundays at 10pm following three hours of unscripted programming on a night that now belongs to cable?

At this point, the only new show of interest to me is The New Normal – and not just because it’s about a gay couple. I’m better than that. Its premise has long-term creative potential and inherent conflict.

As for the returning shows:

The creatively promising Up All Night only gets a 13-episode second season while the aging Office is granted a full season? What was the point of bringing back Whitney for a shortened second season only to pair it with Community, which also received a 13-episode order, to die on Friday nights like Chuck did last season? What is with all these 13-episode orders? And why would Thursdays at 10pm be wasted on the low-rated newsmagazine Rock Center with Brian Williams and not matched with Dateline on Friday or Sunday nights?

I’m not programming genius, but neither is NBC (clearly), so here is what they should do:

-    Give Parenthood a post-Voice (airing 8-10pm) boost on Mondays at 10pm. I’m not worried about Smash at this point because half this shit will be cancelled anyway prior to its return, which the network wisely held off until January for an interrupted winter/spring run.

-    Shift Do No Harm from Sunday nights at 10pm where it will be lost amongst all the unscripted programming to Tuesday nights at 10pm in place of Parenthood, which is now on Mondays at 10pm, leading out of The Voice at 8pm, Go On at 9pm and The New Normal at 9:30pm.

-    Shift Law & Order: Special Victims Unit from 9pm on Wednesdays to 10pm on Wednesdays where it belongs. Shift Whitney and Community from Fridays 8-9pm where it was sent to die to Wednesdays 9-10pm leading out of Animal Practice at 8pm, Guys with Kids at 8:30pm and into Law & Order: Special Victims Unit at 10pm for a traditional two-hour block of comedies leading into an hour of drama.

-    Shift Chicago Fire from Wednesdays at 10pm to the ER slot on Thursdays at 10pm in place of Rock Center with Brian Williams leading out of 30 Rock at 8pm, Up All Night at 8:30pm, The Office at 9pm and Parks and Recreation at 9:30pm for another traditional two-hour block of comedies leading into an hour of drama.

-    Lead off Friday night with Grimm at 8pm in place of Whitney and Community followed by the similarly-toned (from what I can tell) Revolution at 9pm in place of Grimm. End the night at Rock Center with Brian Williams at 10pm in place of Dateline NBC, which will still have a Sunday airing.

-    As for Sunday nights at 10pm (in January after Sunday Night Football), just run a full night of unscripted programming beginning with Dateline NBC at 7pm, Biggest Loser (which will be well-rested by then) at 8pm and Celebrity Apprentice at 9pm and Fashion Star at 10pm as opposed to throwing a scripted hour.  

And there you have it, NBC. Strategy and flow. But I can’t help your creative development until you’re ready to help yourselves with it.

While NBC recovers from this commentarial drubbing, I’ll take a look at CBS, ABC and FOX. I’ll touch on the CW but a) there’s just too much to say about it and b) they continue to dig their own grave.